Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a surprise visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon, a move that is likely to rekindle anger in South Korea and China — countries in pivotal positions at a time of mounting concerns over North Korea.

“It’s the new year,” Koizumi told reporters before leaving the Prime Minister’s Official Residence shortly before 2 p.m. for the shrine. “I want to visit (the shrine) with a fresh spirit and in appreciation of peace.”

Koizumi said he paid tribute at the shrine “as the prime minister” and to vow that Japan would “never again wage war.”

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a regular afternoon news conference that Koizumi’s visit was based on personal feelings. “The visit was a private act as an individual, so I don’t think that will cause much of a problem,” Fukuda said.

Koizumi donated 30,000 yen of his own money for flowers to be placed at the shrine, but bowed only once, instead of the traditional Shinto ritual of two bows followed by two claps and another bow, according to a close aide.

In not following the religious ritual, the visit can be defended as still upholding the constitutional separation of church and state.

The prime minister also said he would not visit the shrine again on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, saying, “I only go (to the shrine) once a year.”

Japan’s Asian neighbors have repeatedly protested visits to the Shinto shrine by Japanese prime ministers, because it honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead. The shrine is seen as a symbol of Japan’s militaristic past.

It was Koizumi’s third visit to Yasukuni since he became prime minister in April 2000. He visited the shrine in August that year and in April 2001, causing diplomatic friction with China and South Korea on both occasions.

Asked how he would win the understanding of the two countries, Koizumi said he had already explained his intentions in his previous visits. “I hope they understand that (Japan’s) friendship with China and South Korea remains unchanged.”

The visit comes just as the government is hoping to arrange a meeting between Koizumi and South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun at the latter’s inauguration on Feb. 25 to build personal ties and discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi is scheduled to visit Seoul on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with Roh and pave the way for Koizumi’s visit. But observers say it is now unclear how South Korea might respond to a Koizumi-Roh meeting.

Foreign Ministry officials said the ministry explained Koizumi’s intentions to China and South Korea through their embassies in Tokyo, adding that Kawaguchi will also explain the situation directly to South Korean officials during her trip.

Asked whether his visit to Yasukuni has adversely affected any visit to Seoul, Koizumi said, “No, I don’t think so.”

Koizumi has repeatedly expressed his intention to visit the shrine once a year at “an appropriate time.” It is believed that he purposely chose to visit the shrine now, before the new government is formed in South Korea and ahead of the introduction of a new leader of China’s Communist Party, Hu Jintao.

In Seoul, the visit was criticized by South Korean officials.

“We feel anger and disappointment about the visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the symbol of Japan’s militaristic imperialism, by the top leader of the Japanese government,” the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry said in a statement.

Chinese Ambassador Wu Dawei visited the Foreign Ministry late Tuesday afternoon and condemned the visit, saying the move damaged the political basis between Japan and China.

“(The visit) is a provocation toward the 1.3 billion Chinese people and the efforts made by the Japanese government and its people,” Wu was quoted as telling Vice Foreign Minister Yukio Takeuchi in conveying the protest.

Wu added that the way Japan deals with the Yasukuni issue reflects how Japan interprets its past aggression toward neighboring countries, including China.

Takeuchi explained that the move reflects Koizumi’s determination to never again wage war and expressed hope that it would not damage the friendly relationship between the two countries.

In a related development, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hang Kyung summoned the deputy chief of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Toshinao Urabe, to lodge a protest over Koizumi’s visit to the shrine.

A spokesman for Roh also issued a comment, calling Koizumi’s visit “regrettable.”

Criticism was also leveled within the ruling coalition. Junior coalition partner New Komeito, which is backed by a major Buddhist organization, expressed concern over the prime minister’s visit.

Party leader Takenori Kanzaki argued that a visit to Yasukuni is suspected to violate an article in the Constitution that separates the state and religion, adding that it could also damage diplomatic ties with China and South Korea at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea. “The visit is very regrettable,” Kanzaki told reporters. New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai,the nation’s largest Buddhist lay group, which also often works as a powerful election machine for New Komeito and many other candidates running on the ruling coalition ticket.

Kanzaki said his party was not notified of the visit in advance, and urged Koizumi to build a secular memorial facility, as recently recommended by an advisory panel under Fukuda, to avoid such controversy.

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